Good Friday, 10/04/20; An Australian Chest Physician’s Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic. “Diseases desperate grown, by desperate appliance are relieved, or not at all.”
Letters from Australia. No.4 by Dr Roger KA ALLEN (www.sarcoidosis.com.au)
Good Friday has always been a sombre day for me ever since my childhood, not necessarily because of its spiritual significance, but as much by its societal context imposed by religion. This is like the Day of Atonement for Jews and it is somewhat ironic to me, that the sky today is heavy with grey rain clouds as on that execution place of Golgotha on that Friday so long ago and with the national and international mood so heavy with fear and foreboding with no societal or fiscal resurrection any time soon. We need national salvation; a messiah.
When I was at mid-primary school in Brisbane, we lived next door to devout, nay, dour Presbyterians who forbad their children to play on Good Friday which was a day no one “decent” washed their car, had a BBQ for red meat was forbidden, did the washing, housework, played music, drank beer or swore. It was a dour day generally in Australia although in Brisbane since 1949, the 308 nautical mile “Brisbane to Gladstone” yacht race was always started on that day with irreligious gusto but I suppose Jesus and his disciples were “boaties”. Today it was cancelled for the first time. Incidentally, the year I was born, 1951, “Norseman” won the race which was ironic as my great-grandfather was a Norwegian sailor and I would eventually own a wooden Norwegian double-ender yacht.
Good Friday (few could tell me why it was called “good”) was societal incarceration for the day for many when Catholics went to Mass, did the Stations of the Cross, Protestants sang dirges in church before a cross draped in a black cloth and felt miserable while we kids felt generally guilty for killing Jesus. Easter Sunday and Easter Bunny could not come sooner.
And thus it is now that we all feel the oppression of enforced social distancing, restriction of movement and quarantine while health workers in some hospitals here are facing danger on a daily basis; these “heroes” are conveniently now our saviours when we all expect “heroes” to die or become casualties by mere definition. This title lets us off the hook as by calling them heroes and clapping them in the street, we are free to continue complaining of our lot, our confinement in a five star hotel with a view of the river, or of our lost job. On the other hand, we will all expect a ventilator and salvation by modern medicine in human form notwithstanding the deficient PPEs and sweat-wet masks.
“Diseases desperate grown, by desperate appliance are relieved or not at all” (Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 3). We have as yet no “big guns” in this pandemic, just the same measures as has occurred since Tens Plagues of Egypt which was the lead-up the Passover which the Jews celebrate tomorrow and the same measures as in the Plague of Athens in 430 BC with two subsequent waves in 429 BC and winter of 427 BC…(sound familiar?) as three waves occurred with the 1919 influenza pandemic. Just read about it and see the social fallout which followed in Athens.
The measures used for centuries in plagues were quarantine, social distancing, improved sanitation and public health with the medical system unable to cope and with no proper measures apart from chicken soup and TLC (Tender Loving Care). Time and herd immunity usually prevailed as we have a saying in medicine that “all bleeding stops”, eventually, somehow. Our chicken soup and TLC come in the form of ventilators, hospitals barely coping, exhausted and frightened nurses and medical officers, double-shift ambulance officers, police and mortuary assistants. Despite our ability to send men to the moon, space vehicles to beyond our solar system and with the capability of mass extermination by nuclear Armageddon, we are so far completely powerless to fight an organism 120 nm in size compared to the width of a human hair which is about 75 m (75 m = 70,000 nm). We have even painted it colours to market it as more acceptable than in its plain, real livery.
As I reflect on the societal changes which have occurred of the past month in Australia I cannot but think about how life was when I was a child growing up in the fishing town of Ballina in the fifties. Indeed, this life is extolled in my childhood biography, “Ballina Boy; a child’s odyssey of the 1950s”. In a way, I led a more privileged life there than some as my father was a family doctor with his surgery attached to the house although that in itself meant that I grew up in what was really a casualty department as there was no escape from the day to day demands of human pathos.
Although life was arguably tougher then and money and opportunity were tight, I believe people were happier, more content, more frugal, more trustworthy and more community-minded. This may all be a makeover, but I think this is true. Less is more and more is less. We have traded less for more and as result we have less. With regards life at home, mother was the head of the domestic side of life while father was still the head of the house. If you came home from school and told your father the teacher had given you the cane, he’d retort that you probably deserved it. Mothers by and large did not work when married and not everyone had a car or a heavy Bakelite telephone like us. People rode bikes, walked and no one needed to attend a gymnasium as they did not exist. The radio was the communication link at home as well as source of entertainment. ABC news was king and a joint was a leg of lamb.
Shop keepers delivered stuff to the house regularly. The butcher got his carcases from nearby farmers and slaughter houses and who cut them up in front of you in the butcher’s shop whose floor was covered in saw dust to soak up blood. Offal was cheaper than muscle so we ate lots of offal and cheaper cuts of meat (muscle) included brisket which mothers cooked as corn-beef with cloves and onions while breakfast was a range of vital organs such as lamb’s fry and bacon, lambs’ brains in breadcrumbs, tripe and onions with parsley, kidneys with carrot and onion on toast, sweet bread and so on. Steak and chicken were delicacies as was roast lamb which was a Sunday lunch dish like chicken with roast vegetables and my mother ordered a “fowl” from the butcher, not a “chicken” which meant a baby hen.
There were no supermarkets and meat was wrapped in butcher’s paper which we kids later used to draw on. The butcher would deliver meat on request, as well as the baker who came around each day with his cart and drawers of hot pies heated by a small fire of pine kindling. The milkman delivered in the morning before the sun was hot and initially we left a white enamelled quart pot with a lid into which he poured the milk from a can. Later we had glass bottles which held a pint (i.e. two pints to a quart, four quarts to a gallon).
The green grocer came in the afternoon in his little truck with fruit and vegetables in wooden pine crates on the tray with hanging dial scales with a stainless steel bowl and fruit crates made great cricket wickets. Every transaction was in cash, with a pencil on his left ear and calculated in his head with perfect accuracy. The grocer would also deliver orders given over the phone as cars were not the norm. The only pet food was dog biscuits which were like big sea biscuits in the shape of a bone or bones from the butcher. Dogs and cats ate left overs and no dogs and few humans except the bank manager were fat. As a treat sometime Mum made ice-cream out of condensed milk, as well as cocoa and coconut ice-blocks in trays for ice cubes, sometimes churned cream into butter and cooked lots of cakes and biscuits as well as worked in the surgery as Dad’s nurse and right-hand man. Soft-drink was a treat and orange juice was a luxury as Mum would squeeze oranges only when you were sick with the usual childhood rites of passage with exanthems such as measles, mumps and chicken pox, not to mention tonsillitis, rhematic fever and diphtheria.
The toilet was a “pan” with saw dust poured on top off your offerings and your backside wiped with squares of newspaper hung on a wire in the wooden “dunny” out near the back fence and usually inhabited by a green frog which ate flies, as well as cockroaches and occasionally a snake. Toilet trips at night with a torch were always a challenge for kids while the back lawn was always kept green by boys and dad. The “dunny man” came weekly to replace the pan with a new one well doused in creosote and blackened with usage.
The weekly social high-point was to go to the “pictures” which were not called the cinema or movies. Kids went to the Saturday afternoon matinée for a special treat as a icy-firm Peter’s Hava Heart (a heart-shaped ice-cream covered in chocolate and with a paddle-pop stick at the bottom) while adults generally went at night with each show having two pictures; the minor one, intermission then the feature film preceded by trailers and the Movietone News. Kids would save up soft-drink bottles which were redeemed for three pence and this was often traded for lollies to the delight of our dentist with his antiquated drill with leather pulley and no injections unless for an extraction or near death.
At school we were grounded in the three “Rs” while many kids went to school in bare feet, quite a few wore glasses eye patches for correction of squints, callipers on legs to help from the ravages of poliomyelitis for which we were all given the new Salk vaccine made in laboratory monkeys in America. We coped with Imperial coinage (pounds, shillings and pence) and measurement systems such as acres, chains, roods, feet, inches, ounces, pounds, hundredweight, tons, etc. without developing ADHD and needing dexamphetamine, climbed trees without safety harnesses or helmets, spent all day with friends when school was out, made cubby-houses with “stuff”, did not need a councillor when we fell over and grazed our knees, played in rowing boats, fished off high wharves by the river with lines wound on Coke bottles, learnt to light a fire, jump off Dad’s car-shed with black umbrellas as parachutes, listened to the cricket all summer with crystal sets, learned to play cards and board games like Monopoly, fought imaginary Japs or Germans in the backyard with home-made wooden toy guns, played cowboys and Indians without being politically-correct, played cricket test matches with the garbage can as wicket all week, lit fireworks and rockets without dying, and knew about Tobruk, El Alamein, the Kokoda Track and saw “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo”, loved Chips Rafferty in “The Overlanders” and approved when “Smiley gets a gun” although these days he would have been hit by a SWAT Team from a helicopter and he and his father incarcerated for five years.
Now our food-chain is remote and more tenuous, concentrated into a few cartels, national and international, farmers are screwed down in general e.g. the milk debacle, with delivery of goods to homes an exception, while the sense of community we once enjoyed has been fragmented and alienation one from another is the norm, loneliness rampant and domestic violence and dysfunction a national sore while we and our children are more entitled We are in a state of national disintegration in my view.
When once we would never lock our house up when going to the shops, we now live in domestic fortresses with no backyards, with our computers and banking under attack, and while we fear for our Lamborghini or BMW while our children are being groomed in their lavish bedrooms unbeknown to us by paedophiles on line while we open another bottle of Grange or Pol Roger. The idea of Uber-Eats when I was a kid was beyond anyone’s dreams as an idle extravagance, while our modern fetish for boat cruises, distant holidays by plane to increasingly exotic places like Antarctica and Patagonia, have been our nemesis. It has all come back to bite us. We are all in hock either economically, morally and environmentally.
When I was a kid we as a nation made cars, tractors, ships, iron and steel, woollen goods and all range of manufacturing including small arms and machinery whereas now we cannot even make a mask or PPEs, let alone a ventilator. The latter is beyond us. We had a manufacturing base once. Although an Australian doctor, Professor Colin Sullivan invented CPAP for sleep apnoea (The Lancet 1982) and ResMed, an Australian firm which pioneered CPAP pumps, makes them in China. Indeed the Chinese have just purchased three private hospitals, as well as buying into our primary industries including dairying. Everything from our jocks to our asparagus comes from China as well as their tenure over the port of Darwin for the next 99 years. We have done this; not they. They must think we are stupid.
So I feel that we forget our past at our peril. Our way forward in my opinion is to go back. We have lost our way, our identity, our values and our vision. We run the risk through this Covid-19 experience of becoming even more mediocre and dependant and handing on the burning baton of mega-debt to future generations. All we are good at is digging holes in the ground, fracking soil, exploiting our natural resources, cutting down trees while not even saving enough natural gas for domestic use. Indeed we are now importing natural gas.
But a crisis can bring rebirth but my sorrow is that the greatest lesson of history is that people don’t learn from the lessons of history once the crisis is over. The year 2020 to me is our pivot. As a species we are not bad at addressing the short-term but are hopeless at the long-term. I hope my pessimism is unfounded. I look forward to release from our domestic prisons, the resumption of normality and a re-evaluation of our national aspirations. Covid-19 is not the real threat to us; we are.